Monday, April 30, 2012

Tour Time Explained

My friends and I have a ready excuse when we get our schedules mixed up. Luckily for us we're usually having our misunderstandings in the weeks and months before an event and not on the actual day. That excuse is the mysterious and wonderful anomaly of "Tour Time".

The short explanation is that you stumble off the tour bus, rub your eyes and ask the nearest human being, "What day is it?" The correct answer could just as easily be Philadelphia as it could Monday or The 12th.

That's because we grew up going to school or work for five days and then punctuating it with two days off where we do something different and then repeat. When your schedule deviates from that and you loose your point of reference, you are then on Tour Time.

You don't actually have to be on tour to have it happen. People that work in studios or on movies or even just put in long stretches at their office jobs loose all track of calendar information and start thinking of where they are temporally in terms like, "tomorrow's dress rehearsal", "the rough mix is due today" or just "three days from deadline".  

In a way it's actually good because it means that you've structured your life around the thing that is most important to you and you're setting yourself up to be dedicated to it. Where it gets complicated is when you have more than one temporal reality intersecting and "three days from deadline" is also "Friday when your daughter's dance recital is."

Another down side is when you ask what day it is and the answer is never "off".  It doesn't matter if you're an office drone, a pipe fitter or monitor engineer for Madonna. A brutal schedule with no breaks hurts your work and your health. Americans are terrible about this, for some reason we think it's a sign of weakness or betrayal to take some time for yourself. In Europe and elsewhere vacation is copious and also mandatory. Employers know that they get your best work when you get a rest now and then. If you're in the States you have to make a decision to carve out that time for yourself and make yourself take it and to hell with the guilt trip.

Well fellow Brethren of the Knob and Fader, that's all for now. Thanks for stopping by, readership is ever climbing. One thing we're lacking though is your input. We're not some remote company, beholden to advertising dollars. We're just a handful of contributors who love their work in audio and we could use your ideas and input to make this space better. So leave us a comment, drop us a line on Facebook or hit us up on Twitter! We're listening.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

SNR Podcast #3: Touring

Editor's Note: I'm really sorry about the audio quality this week. We tried Google+ as a way to get two guys in remote locations on the podcast and it worked out less than great. It's all there, and there were relatively few dropouts due to bandwidth, but you'll hear some clipping artifacts that I just wasn't able to completely remove. We'll do better next time. Thanks for bearing with us.

This week we upgrade from an interview to a full fledged panel. Karl Maciag joins us again, as well as Corey James Harris, both from the road.  Karl is out for a weekend with the Brothers McClurg and Corey, who works for Clair Brothers has the honor of supporting Van Halen on their current tour. We cover the gamut of tour experiences, from a bunch of guys in a smelly van all the way up to the top of the food chain and pull out a lot of old war stories along the way.

  • 4/28/2012 - SNR Podcast #3: Jon Dayton, Karl Maciag and Corey Harris weigh in with some stories from the road and some thoughts on the touring industry in general.

I've only done one national tour myself. In 2002 I went on the road with Christopher Hopper who did a self booked tour of churches and other venues. He bought an old Bluebird school bus and his bass player (my best friend at the time) and I fitted it out with all the amenities. We were out for three months and played everything from coffee shops that paid us in sandwiches up to church venues that held thousands. We didn't make a cent but we didn't starve either and all made it back to tell the tale. Apart from that I've had a lot of road work in the Northeast, doing one, two, or three night stands with local acts that had branched out, as well as supporting festival stages and church events out of town.

Karl spent a couple years more or less continuously on the road with one act or another. One of his regular clients was Catch 22 when they were out as direct support for Reel Big Fish. His experience took him all over the states and into Canada, generally playing venues in the 2500 cap range. While I had the luxury of touring with my own rig, Karl faced off with a new system most nights and that's where he gained his extensive knowledge of gear, consoles in particular.

Corey was just another kid in one of the bands that I mixed locally. Then one day he shipped himself off to Fullsail. Now, there's a prevailing opinion of Fullsail grads but Corey does not fall under this description.  He's the sort of motivated individual who was going to claw his way up in the business no matter where he went to school. His motivation paid off and he now works for Clair Brothers and in a relatively short time has been out with John Mayer, The Eagles, Journey, and is checking in today from an off date on Van Halen's current tour.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


I've always thought of mastering as sort of a dark art. You send your finished mix off to the mastering studio and some cultured individual takes it into a room rich with walnut paneling and dons a smoking jacket, pours some cognac and several hours or days later your mix comes back sounding even better. OK, maybe it's not quite that impressive, but maybe the reality is even more impressive.  If ever there was a repository for rare and expensive analog gear it's the mastering studio. Picture a signal chain where every device is more expensive than your car and as rare as hen's teeth.

But just the other day I heard a couple mastering engineers discussing how they go about the process and for once it didn't have anything to do with settings on an L2. They were talking about how they hear the material and go about applying their craft to it.  It turns out it's right up my alley!

The thing is, they're trying to make improvements to a mix, not my manipulating the tracks like the mix engineer did, but by looking at the entire audio spectrum and gently applying subtle EQ curves and dynamic processing.  We're talking adjustments of tenths of a dB in some cases.  But what totally blew my mind was they way they talked about hearing the spectral content and sometimes completely missing the song!

I've listened to music that way my entire life. To this day I have to listen to a song a pretty long time before the lyrics start to sink in. It's worked out pretty well for me as a live engineer, because I can very quickly hear how a room will affect the sound I can tune a system up in a hurry.  Then as I move on to mix, I start out by listening to the entire spectrum of sound and get things balanced, then I start to pay attention in a more musical fashion and do things like bump guitar solos and whatnot.

Going into studio work, I don't often have the luxury of sending out for mastering, so I have to do it myself. I'm also usually pressed for time, so I've devised a technique to kind of fake it. I set up a multiband compressor on the two bus right at the start of a project.  Then as I went along mixing I would start to hear when I got into it and kind of let that guide me. It worked a lot better than trying to just dump it on at the end and getting surprised by how it behaved.  

Now that I've got a better picture of the process I'm starting to think about how I'll apply my plugins after my mix is done. I'll still mix into the multiband, but then I'll take it off and start to make decisions about where to apply compression. If I want the mix to pump with the kick drum or if I want it to be on its own. On the EQ front I'll be looking for any spots that could use a little taming or some additional sparkle.

If you're looking to read more, there's a good series on mastering over at ProSoundWeb, here's the link: 10 Questions About Mastering
What do you know about mastering? Care to share a few tidbits?

Thursday, April 26, 2012


I've been asked about headphones a bit lately so here goes.  The questions have come from all directions so I'm just going to go through the way I use them and my thoughts on the subject.  Hit the comments if you want to know more or have your own thoughts to add.

My first experience with headphones dates back to the Seventies when I was just a wee sound lad in my walker in my parents' living room, listening to Linda Rhondstadt on a pair of gigantic earmuffs my Dad had.  (No wonder I became a metal head.) I wish I still had that photo because it was at that tender young age that I first started to notice the difference between cans and speakers.

Let me divert a little here and explain the term cans.  Telegraph and early radio operators used to wear headphones that looked a lot like tuna cans, hence the term.  Ear goggles is a more recent slang term but it's a lot quicker to say, "gimme the cans".

Fast forward to college and I wound up in possession of another pair of Seventies era cans that I made do for DJ work.  But by the time I made my way through the music production department I finally needed to invest in something better.  So I gave $20 to the Sony Corporation and bought that pair you see everywhere. (The V150, there are several in the office as we speak)  At the time I wasn't trying to actually mix on them, just cue up CDs or sound effects. 
Shortly though I was starting to mix bands in venues that required more PA than just speaker-on-a-stick. At that point I finally realized that I needed something I could actually hear at a gig.  When there was something wrong with an input and I couldn't figure it out, I would much rather solo it in the cans than try to twiddle with it pushed up in the mix so I can hear.  I got a pair from Audio Technica that I thought I loved until they got stolen years later and I found out how much better things could be.

It wasn't until there were quite a few gigs behind me that I started to really work headphones into my sound check procedure.  Having mixed festival style quite a bit I'm pretty good at doing five minute changeovers with two minute sound checks.  But there have been some times where it wasn't possible for me to do a live check through the mains.  So, listening to recorded music in the mains and having heard previous acts, I knew roughly where I stood.  On go the cans and I do my line check soloing one channel at a time.  If the system sounds good, all I have to do is make each channel sound good and then tweak a little once the band finally starts.  If there's something about the setup that's going to throw me off, I can account for that a little in the process.  
When I met my business partner a few years ago he was using a pair of Sennheiser 280.  I grabbed a pair so we'd have a common reference point and got some others who work with us to do the same.  Turns out we made a good choice.  List after list of headphones came out and the 280s were almost always ranked at the top.  They're really about the best you can do for less than a hundred bucks. There's a 64 ohm version that I bought because the lower impedance allows for higher SPLs, and that counts when you're trying to solo in front of a big PA.  There's a higher impedance model that is a little more sensitive to detail, but I don't mix on headphones so I had no interest.  When I started my last job I was pleased to find a few 280s around the office to offset the Sonys.

But let's flip to the studio side for a minute.  With the popularity of pocket sized music players and bud earphones does it make sense to mix to that audience?  The answer is not only no but HELL NO!  You need to make sure your mix is going to sound good on good equipment.  If it does then it should transfer well to playback methods with lower fidelity.  The reason is this, only the very best speakers can give you the type of clarity in the highs that you can get out of cans, and that only if they're set up right.  If you mix something in headphones, when you take them off your reverb tails are likely to go away, the bass will probably be off, and the panning as well, and that's if you didn't screw up a bunch of other stuff too.  But if you do a good job on speakers first, then when you slip on the cans or pop in the buds, you should have roughly the same experience but you can hear some of the fine detail a little better, and you won't feel the bass but you should still experience it. It should really sound pretty much the same but give you a few nice surprises.

Try it yourself and see.  I've been forced to mix stuff in a hurry, on a laptop, with buds and I got away with it only because the client knew it would be a rush mix, but also because as a live sound guy I'm used to mixing in one place to make things sound right in another place.  Like when I walk down front at a show and then compare that to what I hear at the mix as I adjust. I've had a lot of practice at that so I could pull it off to an extent, but it was a lot of work and you can see how it might be better to conserve brain power and just mix where you're at instead of where you're trying to be.  Going back to the example from sound checking, I'm usually not matching the inputs to the system, I'm just making them sound good and they usually still sound good when I bring up the mix in the house.

That's just dipping a toe into the world of headphones.  If you're an audiophile you can easily invest thousands in a pair, and then tens of thousands on exotic monoblock tube amps (one for each ear of course).  But really where a lot of people are at, especially with the advances in home recording, is just needing a fairly decent pair.  The last bit of advice I'll give is to not use any of the hip hop style bass enhanced models, you're just asking for it. Save those for recreational listening or checking a final.

Go ahead and light up the comment section. I'd love to hear your two cents.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's All In The Look

I got to thinking about my appearance a while ago which is something I don't do too often. My whole life I've never cared to do much more than put on jeans and a t-shirt and go about my business. I usually have a beard and wear my hair long. I've always worked jobs where this is acceptable (touche Mr Guidance Councellor!) and in fact it often kind of helps peoples' expectations of you if you already look like a carpenter or a roadie or whatever. It has mostly proved that the people I've worked for either haven't judged me by my cover, or that they have and were either correct in their assumptions or I proved them wrong. Yeah, I'm the guy in the Motörhead shirt at your church event, but I'm just in the back making it sound great so whatever.  You can make all the arguments you want about professional appearance, but ten seconds of talking to some schween of a sound guy in a tie will have you looking around for the guy in cargo shorts who actually knows what the heck he's talking about.

That said, I've had it work out pretty well to look a bit imposing. It's said that guys with beards appear less happy, and are generally perceived to be a little bit sinister.  Long hair, earrings, tattoos, black clothing with skulls on it, these things have always been the tell tale signs of a rebel. With musicians and promoters of a somewhat sinister nature approaching me all the time, it goes a little better for me if they don't realize right away that I'm about to become their best friend. I like to have the opportunity to put someone a little on edge and wait to see if they're going to be a jerk. If they're not, it only takes a few seconds of talking to me to find out that I'm friendly and getting ready to help them have a great show.

I've even taken it a step farther. I'm a little bit Scottish and when I heard about a rigging crew that wore kilts to the gig I jumped right on it. My partner and I wear the kilt all summer and besides keeping you way cooler than shorts, it's a heck of a way to gain the respect of those around you.  Not only does it tend to generate smiles among the patrons, but if you happen to get into a dispute with someone and they start to get agitated that's when the intimidation factor kicks in.  I'm 6'2" (1.9m) tall and weigh 163 pounds (74 kilo) fully dressed and soaking wet. It's all manner of fun to watch as someone who thinks they're going to push around this bean-pole sound guy have the realization dawn on them that they're getting into an altercation with a guy in a kilt. Yeah, that guy's wearing what basically amounts to a skirt, in public, and he's not bothered by it. There may in fact be a glint of ancient Scottish warriors in his eyes and maybe I should go double check my rider before this goes any farther...

There's all kinds of things you can do to generate a little healthy respect that aren't quite so intimidating. After all, not every gig can handle a kilted sound guy, or one with a bone through his nose or whatever.  One of my favorite examples is walking into a venue and shouting, "Hey! Where's the house sound guy?" and having a girl answer. Right way I'm on my guard because honestly, I instantly figure that any woman in a job like that is likely very much on her game and at least twice as tough as any guy in the same position.  So, all you female engineers, you've got that going for you.

But really, what it all comes down to is, it's just nice to work in an industry where you can pretty much dress how you want and do your job. I run into people in suits and people in hemp fiber shorts. It takes all kinds and there's generally a spirit of working together on most gigs, no matter what clothes people are wearing or how big the holes in their ears. If there's a little intimidation involved it's really only superficial. For me, the intimidating thing is running into someone who's vastly more experienced than I am. Luckily, they usually share the same ideals of working together and making the gig great.

So that's that my fellow Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Hit the comments section and throw in your own ideas.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mixing Buzzed

I've got another sort of health related topic today. In many places where we practice our craft there's booze flowing and we've got the option to imbibe if we choose to. Here's a bunch of reasons why you shouldn't.

Alcohol is a depressant and as it's slowing down all your reactions it can make you sloppy.  Missed cues or solos and other stupid avoidable mistakes become more common the more you drink.  But beyond that, there are some tiny muscles in your ear that are affected as well.  Your ear acts like a compressor in the presence of loud noises.  If you concentrate you can actually hear and sometimes feel your ear contract on a loud snare hit.  If the muscles that do that are slow to respond, the release time gets longer and the mix will start to pump in your head.  As the one person in the room with access to dynamic control, it's a good idea to have as clear a picture as possible when you're making adjustments that affect everyone.

The second reason to abstain is your image.  I've been at more than a few gigs where by the third set the sound guy can barely keep his eyes open and the lighting guy is literally asleep at the switch.  If it's just your buddy's bar band this might not matter, but if you're trying to cultivate a professional appearance you'd do well to refrain from getting blitzed.  I'm a real lightweight when it comes to alcohol so I've often been the only sober guy in the room.  I didn't think about it until just recently that by doing so I really elevated my status in a lot of peoples eyes.

I've never made a big deal about staying sober at a gig, but people have noticed.  If you think about who your working for and who is paying to see them it starts to make sense.  A lot of these people couldn't conceive of playing or watching a gig without having a few drinks.  By staying sober I showed them that I was serious about the work I was doing for them and that translates into real dollars in the end.

And the last reason is safety.  At the end of the night the band is going to put their stuff in the cases and hopefully hop in with a designated driver and vanish into the night.  The crew then has to come alive and run a load out.  There's no way around the effects of alcohol except taking the time to have it wear off.  You might picture a rigger or forklift driver at an arena gig and say yes, absolutely those guys should be sober.  But even at a much lower level it's important.  If you've got a pole speaker in your arms and trip on a mic cable for instance.  It lands on some girl's foot and her biker boyfriend takes offense. Need I say more?  With so much at stake and so many potential dangers, it just makes sense to stay straight.

I won't drone on about it.  That's my stance and I'm stickin' with it.  You can offer to buy me a drink at a gig.  Except in the rarest of cases I won't accept.  Offer Mountain Dew instead. Our industry runs on the stuff.  It's like liquid hit points and if you drink enough of it you level up and go into consulting.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Demo

It's an ever changing world out there and I like to think it changes for the better once in a while. Take for example the state of the music business. Big music is taking hit after hit and instead of reacting to the changes in a way to take the best advantage of the surge in indie music they're working on breaking the internet to protect their interests.  The good news for us in the biz is that artists like Radiohead and the comedian Louis C. K. are putting their stuff up online and you can pay what you like. It sounds like a disaster but they both made a mint. Instead of needing to sell millions of records and making pennies on each one, a small artists can sell a few thousand to their Facebook friends and make dollars on each one, then go on to make another.
My area of interest in all of this is the recordings themselves.  The days of record companies throwing buckets of money around for recording artists to ride around in limos and live in studios are long gone. The biggest of the big have always built their own places to record and it's getting ever more possible for even the lowest of the low to do so as well. About ten years ago I turned my garage into a studio, really I just added a window to my workshop so it wasn't a heavy investment and good thing too. After doing only about a dozen projects the price of a digital recorder got to be less than hiring my services for a weekend and garage bands started retreating to their parents' basements to murder their music on their own time.

Suddenly the scene was flooded with terrible demos which was really pretty awesome. In previous years I had watched bands play out for months to save enough to go into the studio for one night and record. Only a few did it and only a few more attempted it on their own because even an awful four track cassette was a pretty big investment. Most of those bands played for a while and moved on with life, but a few caught the interest of the fans and eventually record labels and went on to sign contracts and tour. But all those that made the attempt made a contribution that helped the scene to flourish.

But I'm getting away from what I really wanted to write about and that's the method.  Let's assume that we're talking about computer based recording here because it seems like the hardware based digital recorder is just about done for.  Now that Pro Tools is available for paper route money, and other DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) are available for cheap or even free (check out Reaper!) there are lots of ways to make a better recording on your own.  But where to start? The problem is that no matter what your experience level as a musician is, your experience level as a recording engineer is likely to be pretty close to the bottom of the scale.

There's always dumb luck.  My studio friend Kevin remarked once that on almost every awful sounding demo there's usually one thing that sounds great. The high hat, or the floor tom or something.  But to try and get beyond that the learning curve is pretty steep.  The problem for a lot of musicians is that they try to get their stuff to sound like other recordings they like. The truth is though, if you're a kid in your Mom's basement with a ten watt practice amp you're not going to lay down tracks that sound like Jerry Cantrell because he's doing five passes through three amps and a dozen mics. The thing to concentrate on is just getting a good take that sounds more or less like what you actually sound like.

So if the band sets up and you've got a minimal interface for your computer, you might only be able to take two tracks at a time. There are a number of ways to get good drum sounds with one or two mics, so read up on those and try to just get your drum tracks down with maybe a guitarist and singer playing along in another room to feed to the drummer's headphones.  Then go back and do passes to pick up the bass, guitars, vocals and whatever else you have. Learn how to punch in and fix mistakes and work it over till you have it as right as you can get it.

Then stop. Stop right there. 
Don't try to mix down your own stuff. Well, do... but not for keeps. Go ahead and do a rough mix so you have something to listen to and decide if you're happy with the way you played, but without some experience you'll never get it to sound right.  Take that rough mix and go find someone to mix down for you.  If there's a studio or venue in the area, start hitting people up. Even offering a few bucks for a couple hours of quick mixing will yield better results that what you're going to do with stock plugins and lame presets.  Use it as a learning experience, sit in on the process but don't be a pest. Even a hack will at least be able to dial in some EQ and compression and get your stuff cleaner and louder.

Don't forget that with digital tracks, the world is your oyster.  Get on the message boards and ask for people to mix your stuff. Maybe make a contest of it and only pay the guy who does the best mix. Or look up studio websites. There's not a huge chance that you'll steal away Metallica's mastering engineer, but it could happen if your stuff makes him smile. More likely there's a studio intern who knows a bit and is waiting for a chance, and your $100 mixdown would keep him in Ramen for another month. Then at least your stuff gets mixed on better gear.

So how do you ship it out? If you've done your work well you've got a track for each mic you set up in your session.  Then if you went back and did some punches or edits to fix mistakes you've got different regions in some or all of those tracks. If you went ahead and turned on a bunch of plugins and set up automation for your rough mix that's fine, but turn all that stuff back off and do what's called "rendering the stems". Different programs do it differently, but they'll all be able to process the edits on each track and turn out a new track that's one complete file. Label those and that's what you'll send off, along with a copy of your rough mix and any conceptual ideas that you have.
And that's the last thing I want to talk about. Your concept. In the theatre, the lighting, costume, set and other designers will often have a concept that allows them to tie their work together. In school the joke one was "a rose blooming through ice". So the lights start out cold and get warmer, the costumes start out blue and are stripped off to reveal colors underneath, and so on. For a record it could be something as wanting an industrial sound, or more esoteric like, "I want it to sound like robots fighting in a junk yard". Usually what I get from teenage bands is, "Just make us sound like Godsmack". Which is fine really, at least I had something to go on. But give your mixer some input about your goals.  Then let them do their thing and most importantly don't bug them too much.  If you're getting a cheap or free mix out of somebody don't be that client that asks for six revisions.

You may find that you have a talent for it, or maybe one of your friends does.  But to really get good at it there's just so much that you need to learn about micing, gain structure, processing and a million other things, that if playing is what you're really interested in you should learn the bare minimum and just play.  You can make a pretty good recording with just some cheap mics and a little practice at placement, so study up on that and spend some time setting up your sessions. Then you can hand off to someone who's joy is in the rest of the process.

And with all that said... anybody got some tracks they need mixed? Hit me up.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

SNR Podcast #2 - Studio Talk with B.Moore of Redbooth

Studious recordus

[UPDATED] The correct file is now attached.

This is my friend B. Moore who runs Redbooth Recording in Rochester, NY. I've had the privilege to hang with him and learn some stuff over the years, and now it's your turn.  We got into it for over an hour just jawboning about how he works, both on his projects and in his business. I mentioned his website several times in the podcast and it is well worth your time to go and check it out. Specifically, make sure you check out the "Hear the Artists" page.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Quote Of The Day - What's The World Coming To?

The following was re-posted from Facebook and the posters names are used with permission. No DJ's were harmed in the making of this post.

Mixing In The Theatre

Sooner or later you're going to find yourself behind the console in a theater and these are some things you're going to want to know.

Let's start with mics. Actors on lavalier mics are really the only way to go to capture a natural performance, it's not so easy though. Most typical is to go with an omnidirectional condenser. What? You mean with all those mics out on stage you want all omnis out there? Yes, they have better frequency response and a cardioid should only be used as a last resort, if at all. You'll find that it's well worth the tradeoff in signal bleed to have the most sound available, and you've also got the option to pick up adjacent actors with the actors that are miced.

So now you've got a troupe of actors, all wearing mics on stage and you start to mix, but holy cow is there a lot of feedback. Back up a bit and start with one mic, out at the mix. Keep turning it up and keep touching those graphic EQs on the house mix until you've got the channel gain up nice and high. But wait? You don't start by turning down a bunch of frequencies on the channel? Heck no! If you use up all your EQ fighting feedback you won't have any left to shape the sound of the individual actors. Since it's quite likely that if one mic feeds back at 250 Hz so will the rest of them, just notch it out once and move on. Also if you have a high pass filter of any sort, activate it on every lav channel. Most consoles have at least a button for roll off below 80 Hz and if you're lucky to have a sweepable low pass, get that sucker up to about 160 or 180. Except in the rarest of cases, those frequencies will never be needed to help the performance and with a host of mics open you're going to cut out a ton of rumble and room noise that comes from summing them, saving precious watts for intelligible vocals.

So now that you've got the room tuned for worst case scenario, a mic out in front of the mains, you need to further tune it on stage. Grab an actor and have them wear the mic on stage and say something. Any phrase will do, some lines from the show, their phone number or email if they're cute, whatever. Still not touching the channel EQ, get busy on the graphs again until you have even more gain at your disposal. A good tip to remember when on the graphs is that if you've touched more than half the faders you should flatten it out and start over.

Now you're ready to put the fleet out there and see how it sounds. Well, not quite. If you have any dynamic processing on hand you have to figure out where to use it. If you're lucky enough to be on a digital console and have full gating, parametric EQ, de-essing and coffee brewing at your fingertips you're set to go. If you've only got a couple channels of compressors from Guitar Center you have to decide where they'll do the most work for you.

If you've got an actor with a ton of dynamic range you could insert a comp on their channel, and really, compression-per-channel will get you the best results, if you've got the time and focus to get it done. But a little trick that will save you time, win you fame, fortune and the girl, here's what you do. Insert a comp on each sub-group that you have at your disposal and route the mics to them in groups. A common patch that I use is one sub each for male and female chorus members, and the same for male and female leads. This way when you've got one or two actors out there, you'll only compress if they really belt it. But when the whole cast piles on, you'll be compressing pretty much continuously to some extent, evening things way out and saving the audience from painful spikes. The only pitfall to avoid is too much compression which flattens out the mix. When comping on the groups it's good to go with a fairly low ratio, no higher than 3:1 and have it kick in pretty early (low threshold) so that you don't get pumping in the mix. But there's no juicy tidbit of knowledge here that will save your butts kids, use your ears, learn the box.

With that said you can finally hand those suckers out. But not just willy-nilly. First of all you will have conveniently hidden all the clips that come with the mics and armed yourself with medical tape, band-aids, barrettes, and a host of bobby pins. The actors will just loose the clips anyway. Have the actors square the body pack away somewhere and attach the pickup in the best possible location.

Top of the head is really good. It keeps the mic pointed away from reflections from the floor and walls and also helps a little with isolation between actors on stage. Place the pickup just at the hair line and hold it in place with a pair of bobby pins in an X or with a barrette. Add a couple more moving toward the back to secure the wire and finish up with a piece of transparent medical tape at the nape of the neck. If there's not enough hair to pin to up there or if the costume doesn't permit, then try to tape the element just behind their jaw. Both of these methods keep the distance from the element to the actors mouth the same so you don't get different levels as they move around. If all else fails, just pin it to their costume and pray.

Now that they're finally out on stage with their mics, the director will immediately start harassing you about how the show sounds. If you can't block them out then go have a nice conversation about how you need at least five minutes before you achieve perfection. After you tweak the trims you can finally touch those channel EQs. Note that you may have to reduce the gain setting on the pack itself if a particular actor is really belting and causing it to clip.

A couple quick tips about channel EQ. First, roll off the bass. Just do it. You probably don't need it in 99% of cases and it'll still be there if you want to put it back. But don't. The low mids can be tricky but this is where you'll earn the right to say “that's why they pay me the big bucks” (or nothing and misspell my name in the program but hey, it's not about the money). You'll be tempted when things don't sound clear to grab some highs and turn them up. If you do this a team of audio specialists will come around and smack you, there is no escape so get this through your head. When you can't hear something it's usually because there's something else in the way.

For guys, take a real hard look between 160 Hz and 300 Hz. This is the mud room. If you don't know exactly what to take out then turn down the gain on your low mids about 6 dB and sweep the frequency back and forth until they sound the clearest. Then slowly turn the gain back up until they don't sound tinny. For girls, you want to look a little higher, from 600 Hz up to about 1.5 kHz and do the same thing to take care of any harshness.

You'll want to stick at this for quite a while, until you're absolutely positive that you can do nothing else to improve the sound. Then and only then can you start to add just a little low mid to the girls to fill them out a little and maybe put a little of the low end back on the guys so they sound nice and manly. If at any time you feel like you're having trouble deciding what frequencies to touch there's a little trick where instead of cutting the gain and sweeping around, you raise it and sweep. When it sounds the worst you then cut that frequency. You may need to warn people that you're doing this as it can be quite disconcerting to listen to. You may even need to find some down time to spend with each problem actor to get it right when nobody else is around.

That's about it for the lavs. Now let's talk about area mics a little. A lot of schools have a pair of hanging mics that a director will want you to use. They're not as common in other venues because what they're really intended for is getting a decent recording of the Christmas concert. They should never ever be routed to the main mix and if you do those same guys will be around to administer a smack or two. I may be one of them. Those are usually omnidirectional and by putting them in the mix to try and catch a line or two from upstage you're just going to get room noise or Uncle Ed coughing in the twelfth row or the pit band. Do. Not. Do. It.

Instead go for a row of pencil condenser mics, or some PZMs if you can get your hands on them, across the front of the stage. These are directional mics and will serve to help keep room noise, the pit band and Uncle Ed out of your mix. The Three To One rule states that the distance between two mics should be at lest three times the distance from the object being miced. Chances are you have what you have and you'll be working around pit musicians so just do the best you can. Most PZMs are basically omnidirectional though so instead of placing them flat on the floor, which basically turns the floor into a big mic, try mounting them on a smaller vertical surface like a piece of plexi or a music stand. I've had good results and bad doing that so try some things out. Keep in mind that the size of the plane it's mounted to will affect the frequency response.

EQ the heck out of them, insert graphs on their group if you're able, and keep cranking the gain. The more you can get out of them the better chance you have of picking up that stray line, or saving a scene when a lav goes dead. If you're able to hang some up stage, or mount them on the set then that will help as well and you can pick and choose as fits the scene. In general though you're not going to use them much unless a lav dies and you're left grasping at straws. You can help out a big choral number some, but with a bunch of lavs on stage you can usually get a pretty good blend.

Well, that's about it for the basics. You're now ready to venture out into the world of theatre and deal with all this stuff on a nightly basis for your bread. Oh yeah, and also all the attitudes, cranky directors, back stage drama, stage parents, bomb scares, pregnancy scares and fire alarms you can handle. Good lu- er... break a leg.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Is This Thing On???

You get a little rant and a free tip for a bonus post today.  In my humble opinion there is just no reason to ever thump a mic to see if it's working or un-muted.  Most mics are pretty well built these days so it's not like you're going to kill it.  Well, unless you've got a ribbon mic on stage but... well yeah, there's a better way people.

If I'm standing on stage with an MC mic in my hand and I want to make sure it's on, I just hold it up to my mouth and very softly make a "tst" sound or two.  My brain knows what my mouth is doing and can check with my ears to see if they heard it reproduced in the room.  999 people out of a crowd of 1000 won't notice that I did it.  I can even do it when there's someone else speaking and not disturb them.

Moving on to the line check.  With the exception of a handful of mics that are designed for super high levels like kick drum mics, there's no need to walk around the stage tapping things to make sure all your patches are good.  Just walk up to the mic and scratch the grill.  With a partner at the mix the channels can even be muted and they can just crank the gain to see if your scratches light the meters.

And that by Brethren of the Knob and Fader, is your sound guy lesson in stage etiquette  for the day.

Karl Maciag - What started the fire?

The handsome devil you see before you is one Karl Maciag. Karl is a former live mixer, now system designer who is a regular contributor, podcaster and writes his own blog, Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog. 
Devilicus Handsomicus

I'm hoping this topic could end up being a podcast, or a round table discussion.  I love having conversations with other engineers or musicians about what music has defined, or heavily influenced them in their music or their engineering.  Was it hearing an album for the first time? Was it hearing a band live, and being completely overtaken by the sound?  What started it?  What started you digging deeper into sounds that made up those songs?  I think it's safe to say that if you're reading this,  you listen to music differently than people that just listen for the hook on the surface, or the lyric that gets stuck in their head.  You hear things that other people don't notice,  and it affects you.

Growing up,  I always loved music.  It was always on at my house.  For some reason, i remember hearing CCR alot...I'm not sure if that's true, but when I think of being a little kid, i remember hearing CCR.  I liked hearing it, i sang along, it was a good time. I started my own little kid music collection in the late 80's (none of which i will divulge...that's going to the grave), but it was just something fun, the music didn't have a big hold on me.

Then 1991 happened. I was 10 years old, and U2 had just released "Achtung Baby". I put the cassette in my walkman, put on the headphones, and after the blank section of tape rolled, my life was changed..."tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick......BOOOOOOOOODUHDUH.....tick tick tick tick tick".  If you've heard "Zoo Station" you know what i'm talking about.  It was noisy. It was unconventional (to a sheltered kid of the 80's), the guitar seemed to fly in one ear, and out the other.  The snare drum kicks in, and it rang this amazing tone.  The bass moved. Bono starts to sing, and his voice is distorted and has this glassy sound to it. It was the most bad ass thing I had heard up to that point in my life. That track still gives me chills.  I still can never turn it up loud enough.  

It was after that point I started paying attention to the tone, and texture of things in music, in many cases more than I payed attention to the words, or even the melody.  It was the sound that got me hooked.  When I started playing guitar, i wanted to make my guitar sound like The Edge.  When I started mixing, I wanted to have the clarity and definition of the parts that I heard on that record.  That album was a masterpiece to me,  and I wanted my mixes to measure up to that in my head.

There's been other albums since then that have had the same effect, for different reasons. Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love" was a revelation in stereo.  Rage Against the Machine's "Evil Empire" to me is a perfect example of how you can get a huge sound with 1 guitar, bass and drums, and minimal overdubs and processing.  Hearing Deftones "Around the Fur" was my gateway to heavier music.  Their sound is dense, and immersive, but there's subtleties from each instrument that make you listen harder. As I got older, I started listening to more of the classics. The Beatles, Queen, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd.  Hearing the birth of rock music, and learning about how they got the sounds that I wanted made me dig in deeper to how sound works.  "Dark Side of the Moon" still leaves me speechless.  

So if you're feeling uninspired, or frustrated in your audio journey.  Go back to the start.  Go back to the spark.  Remember what sucked you in, and why.  What was your spark?  I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Guest Post - Gordon Wood: The Early Years

Systemus engineerus
Gordon Wood is my business partner. He and I started out with similar sized rigs and would trade work back and forth.  Then I hurt my back and built a smaller rig while he was building bigger ones. (yes, plural).  Now he handles all the work I can't do anymore because I work at a church, but once in a while we mix festivals together.  It's a nice arrangement.  Early on I used to tell potential clients that he had better stuff and I was a better mixer so the only way to beat either of us was to hire both of us.  Lucky for us we got taken up on it a few times and fell into the comfortable roles of Gordon as system engineer and myself doing most of the mixing. Oddly enough I knew very little about his early years as a young sound guy, so here at last is the story.
So probably two months ago Jon asked me to write a little blurb about my audio career and I’m finally getting around to it......

I got started around the age of 14 doing recordings of the high-school band, talent shows, and some other minor work for local non profit groups.  I really had no tools or tricks I just somehow understood the basics of making recordings and setting up basic PA systems.  Fast forward to senior year in HS and I had a tiny system of my own for both recording and live.  Recording I was using tape and a few condenser mics and PA just two eight channel mixers cascaded together with two monitor mixes and a compressor some car speaker setups for FOH and monitors all driven by home stereo amps.  (I shudder to think about doing this now but hey you’ve gotta use what you’ve got right?)  So starting from the absolute lowest level of bare bones taught me a thing or two about what you need and what you want.

The College years......Started buying real amplifiers (Crest), more compressors, better speakers were built, more mics, more wire to solder.  Met the great guys over at Applied Audio that helped confirm my thoughts, I remember Zip telling me later on that they all thought I knew what I was doing way back then.  I still don’t think I know what I’m doing but I’m proud of what I’m doing.  So anyway despite the college years being the brokest years of everyone’s life just about every spare cent (After food and beer...) went to gear.  Since the ladies weren’t interested in the geeky guy with glasses and the soldering iron the gear kept getting purchased at a record pace.  At this point I was still torn between doing recording or live sound and reading as much as I could about both.  I finally decided on live sound with only truly live one-take recording being my path.  I just couldn’t imagine listening to the same three minute song day in and day out for weeks just trying to get what a producer wanted only to have it come full circle to the original take before all that tweaking and processing, etc, etc.  The gigs weren’t as numerous as I had a planned.  The summers did have me working a lot as a stagehand at Darien Lake PAC.  So I picked up a few things from the big dogs of the industry.

After college I met Jon here in O’Lacy’s parking lot and well at first he said he’d died a few years ago but once we started talking shop he decided that he was alive again.  The gigs started to pick back up and my system grew as the gigs demanded, maybe bigger than necessary but hey build your second rig first right?  That and spares never hurt.  This past year we both got to flex our system engineering knowledge further when we were brought into a large church in serious need of some “clean up”  I think we impressed them as they’ve hired Jon permanently and I’m in the wings when needed.  Looking forward to the years to come.  Been meeting a lot of great sound techs and band members lately and can’t wait to see what happens......
[Editor's Note: The parking lot incident went like this. Gordon happened upon me sweating it out at a festival stage in front of our favorite pub.  He saw the logo on my shirt and asked if Jon Dayton still worked for the company.  In my delirium I replied, "Naw, he died."  
Also: the Darien Lake PAC is a shed stage at an amusement park near where we grew up. They see about eighteen or so national acts and a couple festivals every summer.] 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Today marks the second full month of posts. One a day for two months straight.  Readership more than doubled this month and I just wanted to say thanks to all our readers for making that possible.  Hello to all of you in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Russia, Australia and anywhere else I forgot to mention.

Also a huge thank you to everyone who has contributed writing, even if it was just a comment or correction. Keep the questions and ideas coming in and don't forget to check out our podcast. (See link above)  Get in touch if you'd like to join our next round table discussion. Skype is a possibility if you don't live near us.

Thanks again,

24 Bits, 96 kHz: What Does It All Mean?

Ok, so the status quo for digital recording at the moment is 24/96.  That would be 24 bits at 96 kilohertz.  This is a fair step up from when I got started.  CDs are 16/44.1 and most of the stuff around at the time was as well.  Why make the jump and fill up your hard drives faster?  Two reasons.

Let's look at bit depth first.  If you look at each digital word that represents a sample it's really a pretty simple animal.  If you had a one bit system, you get a 0 for everything quieter than half the level the system is capable of taking in, and a 1 for everything over that.  There's no in between.  If you keep adding on bits you get smaller increments that are capable of being recorded.  But why only 16?  If you think of all the sound that takes place in any recording, a ruler with only 16 notches on it seems like a pretty puny tool for the job of faithfully recording it.  But if you take your measurements really fast things get better.

Without getting into a long scientific discussion let's just cover all this stuff about "headroom" being better in a 24 bit system and move on.  If you're working at 16 bits and you record something with a lot of dynamic range, you have to hold the volume down so that the peaks don't run out of room.  You wind up with a lot of quiet sounds in there. Later on if you're looking to normalize or compress that signal, there are only a few bits describing those quieter sounds.  If you record at 24 bits then you don't need to record as hot because there are more bits describing the quieter signals.  You can raise them up in volume and maintain better quality.  The only thing you need to watch out for is converting down to lower bitrates.  Some poorly implemented converters accomplish the job by just lopping off the least significant bits, good ones do a lot of math to make sure everything translates in the best possible fashion.

Now let's get on to sample rate.  The Nyquist rate is the speed at which you need to sample to obtain frequencies that are half of that rate.  So a 44.1 kHz system can capture audio frequencies up to 22.05 kHz which is above the hearing range of humans, so we're all good right?  Not so fast.  There are frequencies emitted by almost any source that are above our hearing range.  What happens if you take a sine wave at 25 kHz and another one at 26 kHz and play them back?  They're both above our hearing range, but you would actually hear a beat frequency where the two interact at exactly 1 kHz which is right in the middle of our hearing range.

There are mics now that are capable of capturing frequencies in excess of 100 kHz.  Pair them up with a 96 kHz recording system and you're capturing just a ton of data that we can't hear, but some of the interaction between those frequencies up there will translate into stuff that we can hear.

So it's not hard to see why it's worth making the jump up to a 24/96 system or even higher.  This is one of those areas where if good enough isn't good enough, you can take some extra effort that might seem superfluous but will actually improve your work in subtle ways.  Why?  Do low bitrate MP3s sound OK?  That depends, do you just want to hear that catchy song from the radio and enjoy the hook on your earbuds?   Or will you be trying to reproduce that same song in a venue with pristine line arrays for a discerning audience?  I'd be looking for higher bit and sample rates myself in the second situation.

Hopefully that sheds a little light into the murky depths of the digital audio realm for my fellow Brethren of the Knob and Fader.  Feel free to hit the comments section or contact us through Facebook or Twitter to further the subject.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

All Nighters - Sleep Deprivation and Your Health

There aren't too many industries than can claim to be as brutal for sheer number of hours worked than the production industry.  Apart from people who work in TV, movies, touring, recording and a few other specialties, you've got the armed forces, doctors, and some of the more insane areas of construction.  But I don't want this to turn into a pissing match as to who works more hours, the idea is to look at what it does to your body and how you can deal with the effects if an all nighter can't be avoided.

The tour industry tends to be populated with a lot of young guys and a few salty old road dogs.  The reason for this is that young bodies can handle the brutal hours and then they either get out and do something more sane, or learn how to minimize the stress and survive to be the old dogs.  
Pulling all nighters can be just as hard on somebody sitting in a studio as they are for someone working a load out.  A guy pushing boxes is keeping his blood circulating, probably getting thirsty and drinking water, and taking a breather when he gets a chance.  If you're in the captain's chair in a studio, your metabolism is slowing down, you may not realize you're getting dehydrated, and you're not as likely to take a break.

The first and most important thing is to just try and minimize the stress levels.  If you're super stressed you can go into fight or flight mode where you body is churning out chemicals to get you pumped up.  That can be a pretty bad thing if it goes on for a long time with your blood sugar all out of whack and adrenaline making your hands shake, not just for the work you're trying to do but in terms of your health.  It's a tough trick to learn but to be able to disconnect yourself from the extraneous elements like the producer or tour manager breathing down your neck and just do your work is what separates the men from the boys.

Next down the line is storing up energy.  I used to do things like hang drywall all day, then load in a gig, mix, and then strike in the middle of the night and drive home.  There had to be enough of me left to not drive into a pole at the end of it all so I got pretty good at hoarding my energy.  I would make sure I didn't over do it and try to just keep still and relax as much as possible.  (I may have even shut my eyes a few times during the second set.)

Adding to your store of energy is important too.  If it's going on midnight and you haven't had anything to eat in six hours, you're going to start feeling it pretty soon. Get some calories down your neck, whatever you can manage and you'll feel a lot better.  Plan on eating again if it really is an all nighter, even if you're not usually a breakfast person, downing a few more calories before you finally crash at 6am will set you up to feel better when you get up again.

And last and probably the most important is to watch your caffeine intake and especially your water intake.  Even if you're not sweating, conditioned air can suck the moisture right out of you, and it's way harder to re-hydrate than it is to pre-hydrate.  In my college days I often had to drive all night for one reason or another and I would always feel better if I started out with water or juice the first couple hours and then sparingly got into some coffee or cola while still downing water.  I would always feel better and more alert with just a trickle of caffeine coming in than when I pounded it in advance.
If you're starting to feel thirsty it may already be too late and you'll be trying in vain to play catch-up.  If you're starting to get a headache from dehydration then you're really in the soup and it can be nearly impossible to drink enough to get back to your full potential so you can focus on your work.  Keep in mind that you're loosing minerals as you're sweating or pissing out all that coffee.  Meals will help restore those and there's always sports drinks.
Beyond that, it's super important to pay attention to any warning signs your body is giving you.  If your heart rate is over 200 or you're having chest pains, for gosh sakes get some medical attention.  It's not all that common, but guys in their 20s and 30s do occasionally drop dead of heart attacks.  Repetitive stress injuries can take you out too, proper posture and even good shoe inserts can help you avoid a back blow-out. If your wrists and shoulders hurt, take a look at the way you do things. Sitting in a chair in a studio can lay you low too, get someone who knows what they're doing, even someone who's just in medical school to check out the ergonomics for you.  Laying on your back with vertebrae out of place isn't the time to look at these things, and carpal tunnel surgery is good these days, but do you really need that in your life?

So stay chill my Brethren of the Knob and Fader.  Those deep breaths and tall glasses of water could be the difference between a long and happy career and leaving the gig early when you have a heart attack.  Learn to pay attention to your body just like you do to your equipment. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Guest Post: Anthony Kosobucki - Time Management

Anth is a good friend and we've frequented many a gig and venue together over the years.  He's one of those type with an old soul in a young body and when swapping stories it seems he's got one for any topic that arises.  Getting a written statement from this guy that's longer than 140 characters is quite a task though and I'm glad to say he finally got around to it. 
Jon asked me awhile ago to write a post for this blog and hadn’t seemed to have gotten to it in over a month.  Which is exactly what triggered me to write this.

It seems a lot of the time in our industry, there is always too much to do, in too little time. And if you’ve lived in a feast or famine type lifestyle, due to your profession, you end up having a hard time saying no to anyone, because that could mean that you and your family may not eat next week; or you may burn a bridge by saying no, that could cause you to not eat in the future.

Sticking around in this type of business usually means that you work unbelievably long shifts, which you have  begun to count in days straight because the way you kept track of the hours was by how many cigarettes are gone out of your pack... Or boxes out of a carton.

One of the most important things I’ve learned while I’ve worked as a stage hand, stage manager, or engineer, is to stop over scheduling myself. It wasn’t so bad when I was single and all my income went to keeping myself terribly not sober, and to support my 2-3 pack a day smoking habit. All I would do is go to school, come home, jump in a van or bus, or my car to drive to a venue to work. After awhile you start getting burnt out, and you hate what you’re doing, which causes your drinking and smoking to spiral out of control, and you turn into one of themost miserable bastards out there.

I’ve cut back quite a bit. I don’t smoke anymore, and only drink occasionally. My full time job now, is a  lighting and audio engineer for a church that runs a couple thousand. However, working here isn’t much different than being on the road. There is an incredible amount of things that need to be done, all the time. There’s the main room, 2 auxiliary auditoriums and a youth/kids facility that has a gym. I spend hours every week repositioning lights in there, because they are constantly hit with basketballs and footballs. On top of that, there are special events, weddings, funerals, and people just showing up deciding that they know what they’re doing, who create more and more work for me.

I’m not complaining about the work, but what I’ve found is that it’s really helpful to leave your self a “What the heck?” buffer. There will be something that goes wrong. A freak lightning storm that fries half of one of your rigs overnight, and you don’t find out until the next day, which is the day of an event. Someone decided that they didn’t like what wireless frequencies you were using, SO THEY CHANGED EVERY LAST  RECEIVER, but not the transmitters, some kid decided your desk was the optimal place for a tasty slurpee to go, Someone else decided that your patch bay was un-necessary and unplugged all of it. All of these things have happened, and all of these problems needed to be fixed in less than 24 hours.

When you load yourself to the brim, you can’t always fix these problems, and in some cases can’t address them at all; not to mention the unbelievable amount of stress you cause yourself when this stuff happens.

We work in an industry that demands at least 100% of our effort (if you’re doing it right). If you don’t allow yourself somewhat of a safety net time, you’ll usually end up looking like an idiot. Because, no matter what happens, it is your problem to fix. If you deny yourself the time to fix problems, or prepare for them, it’s like you’re waving a steak in front of a tiger, and expecting it to just sit there and wait until you’re ready for it.

Making yourself a checklist of everything you need to check before a show or event starts, will work  wonders. Even after you’ve gone through the same routine hundreds and hundreds of times, it’s still possible to forget something. And that extra 5 minutes of checking everything will be worth it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

SNR Podcast #1: Panning, Installs, Digital Consoles

The first podcast is in the can. (That's an old film term, it doesn't mean it's in the toilet. We're a class operation.)  We plan on recording as often as we're able, possibly as much as once a week and including thins like product reviews, interviews and round tables.  If you're interested in participating by all means get in touch.

The Art vs. The Science

I got into a great discussion the other day on a forum about how much of what a live mixer does can be considered "art".  My counterpart's point of view was that yes, you do need to be able to get creative when coming up with solutions to problems but when it comes to the actual mixing it's only about 5% art and the rest is just being on top of the tech.

Let me start by getting completely away from audio and using some examples from a museum.  Unless I'm in a really good creative relationship with a performer I think of myself as more of a curator, but even then there's an art to it.  There's a school of thought that would take any painting in a museum and just hang it on a blank white wall with a good light on it and call it a day.  That way the environs don't interfere with the art. I think maybe my counterpart is in a situation where he's limited to this type of work.  But some curators would take paintings from a French artist and hang them on a stucco wall with a few hints of red roof tiles tucked up by the ceiling, throw around some peasant furniture and try to make things a little like the South of France to be more engaging.

In another example, I got to experience an exhibition where there was a mummy of an ancient Egyptian king on display.  Years ago it would have been in the middle of a big room with ropes around it and security guards.  Instead, you went into a side gallery and got funneled through rooms that slowly put you in context with the culture and process.  The rooms kept getting smaller and darker until you were in an eight by ten room, very dark, with one down light on a glass case that was just big enough for the mummy.  You could put your nose two inches from an actual pharaoh's shoulder.  There wasn't a person in there who didn't fall immediately silent and experience it in a truly profound way.
One last museum example.  At the Smithsonian there's a room that shows you what it's like to be on a WWII era navy ship.  Instead of artifacts in cases, they chopped a two story chunk out of an old ship and built it in.  When you walk in, all the light was daylight temperature, the air was five degrees cooler, and the air smelled like salt.

Let's go back to the audio realm.  When I'm mixing in a club and meeting bands for the first time I try to get beyond basic info like how many members and what instruments.  I try to find out what kind of a vibe they're after and what they want to sound like.  It's usually pretty clear and from there I know what my next step needs to be.

If they've got a record and they want to sound just like it you're looking at a painting on a white wall scenario.  If that's the case then I try to get them to play at least a little of it so I can try to figure out how I'm going to match days of studio work with dynamic mics and no time.  Respect is the key, the studio engineer's work is the guideline but you have to pick and choose what to try and recreate to get the sound as close as you can.  

If they've got a concept or direction but not any definite idea what they want to sound like then you can take a little creative license and go the route of the environmental route like the French painting scenario.  It sounds kind of bad but I'm reaching for stereotypes at this point.  Hair metal revival act?  Big hair = big snare, wailing guitars, lots of vocal effects.  Punk bands get the dirty treatment.  You get the idea.

If they're a little more conceptual, you get to go the route of the Egyptian exhibition.  They describe a feel and give some ideas, and then you go off and try to build that display that shows the audience what they're about and funnels them toward the heart of it.  To me this means doing things like picking and choosing what instruments are in the foreground and blending back and forth.  There might be loops or samples and room for strange effects patches.

And lastly there are bands that just want to sound like what they sound like, only louder.  This is one of my favorite types to work for.  It's the battle ship scenario.  This is it, the real deal, with just a few extra tidbits thrown in to kick it up a notch.  I'll usually have a band like that just play their instruments for me one at a time while I'm micing up.  Once I've got their tones in my head it's an easy reach to head back to the mix and make it sound like that out front.  And of course you can add in those nice little touches that make a live band sound great like tasteful effects and dynamic processing.

Going one step beyond this is when you strike up a good working relationship with an artist.  I love it when a band feels comfortable around me and says, "Yeah Jon, just do what you want with the effects and stuff, make us sound great!"  When you know the material and the players you can do all sorts of stuff.  Not just easy stuff like anticipating solos or tap delay settings either.  When you can tell what a band is thinking you can start mixing to match the emotion better.  I've had many a band walk up to me after seeing me mix someone I know and ask me if I can do that for them.  It's not as easy but I'll always give it a try.  

There's not always a lot of room to experiment though.  A four piece rock band is pretty much a four piece rock band.  The times when you get to really stretch your creative muscles are when you're working with a larger group that has more to work with.  A typical band where I work is drums, bass, two electric guitars and one or two acoustic, three keys doing piano, organ and pads, sometimes a sax and six vocalists.  I have so much fun trying to figure out what instrument I'm going to feature at any moment.  Sometimes it's by design or request from the director, but a lot of the time I'll just hear something and go for it, or try random stuff at a rehearsal and see what's hiding under the main theme.  Or if a stretch of music starts to get boring, like multiple repeats, I'll grab three channels and slowly work them back and forth against each other every few measures.  It's the same thing for dozens of measures but every four the acoustic comes a little to the front, then the piano and so on.

And finally, going back to getting creative about the tech.  Let's say I'm out with a band and we show up at a festival stage.  There's a big ol' Midas or A&H at front of house, 48 channels let's say.  But the headliner has 24 of them locked out, and there's another 8 in use for returns, playback and a DJ.  That leaves me 16 but two of those don't work.  So now I've got to figure out how I'm going to take my 24 channel input list and get it down to 14 channels that I also have to share with the other support acts and won't have access to until line check.  Oh... and don't touch the reverbs.

To quickly run through the process... 12 drum channels is out of the question, so do I really need two kick mics? maybe not, two snares, probably yes.  Toms area  given but can I get away with just one overhead, sure what the heck.  Bass DI only and skip the mic.  Have to have two mics per guitar, it's another post but I just can't live without it. What am I up to, 12?  That leaves one singer out so skip one of the tom mics and just double the other one up on the racks.

Now I have that settled and figuring it out has informed my mixing technique.  One kick mic means I'll need to be very careful about placement to get all the boom and crack that I want.  One bass input means careful EQ and compression too.  Twin guitar mics on each rig means I can spend more time on other stuff because having a fat channel and a skinny one that I can play back and forth against each other usually means the EQ can stay flat.  And if I know my singers pretty well I can usually set their channel EQ in advance and just tweak it when they check their mics.  That's getting creative about the tech, but it has to lead to getting creative with the music or I feel like you may as well just get System Engineer or Audio Tech printed on your business cards.  
A real audio engineer, even one without a degree, understands the tech and the gear, but the most important thing is ears, yours and the audience's.  A great engineer get's the music and the artist and uses his or her craft not just to amplify sounds and couple them into a room, but to do the same for the emotions involved.  They understand and respect the audience too.  There's a lot more to consider than not abusing them with too much level, there's a connection to be made there.

So that's it for now Brethren of the Knob and Fader.  Hit me up in the comment section or on Facebook or Twitter and weigh in on the subject.  The links are up top on the right.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sprucing Up A Live Recording

At the church where I mix I'm usually responsible just to get the sermon recorded and so I'm set up to do that pretty well.  Beyond that I usually take a quick board mix so the band can hear themselves but it's not a great mix and it's really more for hearing musical issues than enjoying the performance. When Easter rolled around this year we decided to video the whole thing to post on the net.  I'm kind of limited on my console (it's kind of strange to be frustrated with a Midas L3000) because I've got so many monitor mixes, so it's pretty much a matrix out or nothing for a recording.

That said, my system is also in mono so there's no panning and thirty some inputs in a mono mix starts to sound flat and squashy pretty fast.  Now despite the Mythbusters proving the contrary the old saying, "you can't polish a turd" pretty much holds true.  Please understand that this is in no way referring to the music, but to the method I had to use to record it.  You put garbage in and the best you can do is try to clean it up and finish with clean garbage.

So here's the tricks I used.  I started with my flat, uninteresting mix (which was for the room and not the recording so yes, the horns are down and the vocals are too hot) and normalized it so that my highest peak is at max level.  Then I added some compression.  Not a lot, because the console was squeezing things a bit already, but just to get the big hits under control a little. 

Going a step further, I stopped right there and set up my bus compression on the two mix.  It doesn't matter if you're mixing two channels or two hundred, if you start with your end of the line compression in place and mix into it, you'll know when you're overdoing it as you work, instead of finding out when you try to stick it on last thing.  In most cases I like a multi-band compressor because it almost allows you to remix something once it's down to a stereo mix.  You can take four bands and decide if you want the kick comping with the bass or the bass to compress with the guitars, isolate the vocals a little and manage the cymbals separately, all without having any one element "pump" the mix.

With my dynamics in place I went back to my single track and split it, that is I copied and pasted it.  With two identical tracks I then panned them out hard left and right.  This didn't do anything right away, although it does sound slightly different than hearing a mono track in two speakers.  The kicker is adding just a smidgen, an atom of micro delay to one side.  Humans understand the space around them by the delay in time of sounds reaching each ear.  So you can head fake people with a little delay.  I used to try this with delays in the ten to thirty millisecond range, but it would always wind up sounding slappy or phasey.  With delays of less than one millisecond (I landed on .9ms in this example) you're more closely simulating the time it takes a sound to hit one ear and then travel by your head and hit the other one.  

You have to experiment a little because what you'll get is some comb filtering where some frequencies interact and start to disappear and others add together and get stronger.  Depending on the type of music and the environment you're trying to create you have to put up with some thinning of the sound.  But if you listen to the examples below, I feel like the flat one is a little fatter sounding but boring and the spaced out one is a little thinner but more engaging. With that in place I spent a little time running the slider back and forth from wet to dry and once I was happy with the space I had created I went back to the faders and balanced things out again.  The delay had skewed the sound way to one side so it took a little compensating with levels to pull the image back to center.

For a final touch I added just a touch of reverb, a room that's similar in dimensions to ours, but that doesn't sound as dead.  You can hear it on the drums at the start of a track and it's a little weird, but this is a situation where quite a few compromises needed to be made to make an hour long viewing experience feel alive and not canned.  Somethings sound a little thinner and the cymbals are sometimes a bit flange-y, but I chose a delay that left the vocals pretty solid.  With a quick check in earbuds and headphones I was ready to print.

You can A/B them for yourself with the links below.  I'm not saying I made a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but I feel like it was an improvement.  It's one of those things where you show it to somebody and they start to open their mouth with a few criticisms, but then they ask what you did it on and their eyebrows go up.

Hit the comments or drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what you think or what you would have done differently.  Someday I'll have a digital console in my venue and be able to dial up custom recording mixes, or even take multitracks of everything.  Until then it's all about post production trickery er... sweetening.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Karl Maciag: Stereo Panning In A Live Mix

Karl Maciag is a regular contributor at SNR.  He put in his time in the trenches mixing in clubs and on tour and now lives the good life as a system design engineer. You can check out his personal blog at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog. 
Devilicus Handsomicus
My buddy Alfred asked Jon the question about using stereo imaging in a live mix. (Dear SNR Post) This is something that I pay attention to,  and can sometimes drive me nuts if an engineer takes it too far.  I loved Jon's response, and he does things that I never even thought of trying...I have something cool to try next time I have the toys to do it.

Anyway, here's my take:  I think a stereo image can help an engineer place all of his inputs in the mix easier.  That being said, your priority needs to be that all instruments are heard over the entire listening area.  You have to take into account where people are, and to almost treat their ears as two different listening zones.  I remember reading about a concept called "Zoned Dual Mono",  and while I know I'm not nailing this concept here, it does influence my thought process.  I've tried to find a link to the article that explains it, but luck would not have me find it tonight.

Basically, a stereo image is an image that gives you a perception of things that are either placed, or moving from left to right, or right to left.  If the source is equal between the two sides, you have the image that it is directly in front of you (this is why our ears are on the sides of our heads).  This is effective for recording, and listening with headphones or a nicely placed pair of stereo speakers.  In live sound,  our goal is not so much to create an image, but rather to recreate what is happening on stage to every seat in the house.

That doesn't mean to me that panning is out of the question, but I do think that creating a stereo image can be a problem though.  I hate when engineers have two guitar players, and hard pan both of them.  Effectively up to 2/3 of the audience could be robbed of what is happening on stage.  If I'm going pan something important, like a guitar or keyboard, I'm going to have two inputs feeding the console for that instrument.  

I might do something like have a SM57, and a E609 on each guitar, and put the 57 left and the 609 right for one guitar, and do the opposite on the other guitar.  Keys will get two DI's, and panned hard left and right.  What happens is, those inputs are heard equally in the venue, but for those at or near the center of the mix,  they hear the two inputs of one source (the 57 and 609) panned hard left and right.  The mics have different frequency responses (and maybe slightly different timing with the source), so we can assume that both inputs sound a little different. Hearing the difference, one in the right ear, the other in the left,  makes the brain think we are hearing two different things, and only in one ear.  The image is the guitar sound is to the sides.  That leaves us "room" in the center for more important sources, like the vocals.  Mixing like this gives people that hear both speakers a sense of space,  without robbing people that only hear one speaker every instrument on stage.

I'll close this post by talking about something loosely related to panning in a mix.  Left/Center/Right systems.  I get asked a lot when designing audio systems how I feel about a LCR system.  Lots of spaces, especially churches employ a speaker system that contains a LCR cluster system.  The subject of panning will come up.  Lots of consoles these days have LCR busses, as opposed to a L/R and MONO bus.  I'll contend that in most cases, LCR panning is not feasible.  The reason being,  in order for LCR panning to be effective,  every seat in the house has to be in the coverage of all 3 clusters, otherwise we are back to where we were with the stereo mix - you're missing out on information somewhere.  Typically these systems were designed to provide even horizontal coverage across a wide listening area,  and should be treated as a mono mix covering different zones.

The moral of the story...pan as much as you want...but make sure everyone can hear it all.  Have fun, stay classy.